A shorter version of this was originally posted as my first post to the fountain pen Reddit group.
One of the courses I created and teach at CSU Dominguez Hills is on comics and graphic novels. Part of any super hero’s or villain’s introduction is their origin story. I’m not a superhero, of course, but I do have a moment when Pelikans became my pen and a pen I think of as my magic wand.
I turned 53 in July and have used fountain pens on and off since I bought a calligraphy set with babysitting money when I was 14. When I was 19 and an overly romantic English major at UCLA, I “borrowed” (stole) my father’s incredibly nice vintage pen to use in my classes for notes. I haven’t seen the pen in more than thirty years, but my memory says it was a Parker from the 1940s or 50s, so vintage even back in the 1980s. It had been my great aunt’s and had, I believe, a matching pencil. (Sadly, it was stolen from my dad’s office back in the 1990s.) What I enjoyed about it was that it has a super-extra fine nib that suited my tiny writing. He was surprised I knew about said pen as it’s never been one he’s used because he doesn’t like how fine it is. This is because until recently, when I told him this story, he didn’t know his pen and I have a history.
So, as I said, the pen traveled with me to UCLA and back in my backpack. I used it to take notes in my classes and for other writing, having a great time. In my memory it wrote like a dream. However, within a week after I took said pen, it rolled off a classroom desk onto its lovely gold nib, bending said nib 90 degrees. I was distraught — felt terrible that I’d wrecked something so beautiful, especially given its age and that I hadn’t asked to borrow it. I didn’t want to tell my dad both because I didn’t want him to know I’d taken the pen and also because one of our family stories was about how my mom had borrowed one of his fountain pens when she was in college and (you guessed it) dropped it on its nib and ruined it. I did not want to become part of another family story.
Not knowing what to do, I went to an art store near the campus where they sold new fountain pens. When they saw the pen, they told me that basically nothing could be done, that even the maker wouldn’t repair a pen this old because it needed a new nib and no one made these sort anymore. Even more upset, I thought about going to a jeweler, thinking they might be able to bend the gold back. Before I did that though, I looked in the phone book to see if I could find a pen shop. Sure enough, in Downtown LA there was a place called “The Fountain Pen Shop” with Yellow Pages ad saying they did sales and repairs. Immediately I got on the Wilshire bus and rode to Downtown. The shop was in an old building with an old-fashioned elevator — it was like traveling back in time going up to the store. When I got in, I was in front of the counter of a shop packed full of stuff — packed with fountain pens, new and vintage. I was immediately overwhelmed. An older (he seemed old but remember I was 19) man asked me if I needed help. I pulled out the injured pen, pouring out my story of borrowing and dropping it. The man, I would later learn, was Mr. Fred Krinke. He and his shop were a legend in Los Angeles — a place with an amazing history in a city with no respect for its own history. If you don’t know about him or The Fountain Pen Shop, here’s his obituary from the Los Angeles Times.
He took the pen and examined it. I immediately asked if he could fix it. He said yes, of course. I asked how long it would take, thinking I would leave the pen and come back in a few weeks. He pulled some jeweler glasses from the top of his head onto his face and replied “about five minutes.” He then went over to the back counter which was a small workspace covered with tools. I filled the few minutes he was away by looking at the pens. So many pens! I was too anxious and overwhelmed to take it in. I remember my heart thudding with relief that my dad’s pen was being fixed.
Mr. Krinke brought the pen back over and held it up for me to see, writing a small sample to show that the pen wrote smoothly. It looked perfect — like nothing had ever happened to it. He’d also cleaned it and polished its metal cap. My relief was pretty much beyond words. I asked him how much I owed, prepared to pay anything. He looked at me and said, “$5. But buy your own pens.”
I wish I could say I pulled out my remaining cash and bought a pen right then that I’m using to this day. It would make a perfect story. But I was overwhelmed and rushed out of the shop. I went home and put my father’s pen back. He never knew anything had happened. It wasn’t a favorite pen of his — ironically, as I found out recently when I told him about this, the thing I loved about it, the super extra-fine nib, made it too dry and scratchy for him.
Fast forward more than 20 years.
In 2011, after taking far too long over it, I was finally finishing my Ph.D. and getting ready to formally defend my dissertation. It felt like one of the most important moments I would ever have, closing a chapter of my life that had been, frankly, hard and unhappy. To mark it in some way, I decided I needed a fountain pen, a really nice one, to take to my dissertation defense. I told my dad, a lifelong fountain pen user, what I wanted to do only to have him recommend The Fountain Pen Shop and tell me about “Fred,” who he had known since high school, without knowing about my own early adventure there. Turns out he had been going once every year or so since he was a student and buying ink for his school pens. My memory of that shop and Mr. Krinke being my salvation came flooding back and I was thrilled to hear there was still a fountain pen store in the city, albeit now out in Monrovia rather than in Downtown, and that Mr. Krinke was still working there. Immediately I decided to go there and buy whatever pen he recommended.
Visiting the store in its Monrovia location made me feel like Harry Potter going to Olivander’s to buy a wand. Hearing I wanted him to help me pick a pen, Mr. Krinke started asking me questions: was I going to use this every day? Would I be carrying it in a bag? How much do I write a day, a week? What was my tolerance for mess / leaking? Did I want to use bottled ink? He had me give him writing samples with different sized nibs, finally telling me he thought I’d be happiest with a Pelikan and that I’d need either a fine vintage or extra-fine new nib. I agreed and added that I wanted it to be something beautiful and not too masculine. I then tried some different sized Pelikans, determining that the 400 size felt best.
We then looked through a catalog and I picked out the white and tortoise M400, which he promised would arrive quickly. When it came in, he called me and I went over. It was more beautiful than I’d expected. He showed me how to ink it and had me write with it, adjusted it to make it even finer and smoother, I picked out some ink (black — colored inks would come into my life much later), and there I was — someone who would use a fountain pen every day forever.
My pen came with me to my defense. During the meeting, I looked at it and held it every time I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. It had already become a symbol of me being able to take care of myself and give myself nice things. After my defense was over, it also represents and reminds me of my ability to do hard things.
After that, once I started teaching, I would go to see Mr. Krinke and The Fountain Pen Shop at the end of each semester, sometimes bringing another professor who either wanted a fountain pen or who already used one. Fred would check on my pen (eventually pens), clean it, see if it needed adjusting, and show me any Pelikans he had. I always bought some of his secret sauce. I sometimes bought the Private Reserve ink he carried. Very occasionally I’d buy a new (vintage) fountain pen. Or a matching pencil. Or a ballpoint pen to give people who asked to borrow a pen who I didn’t trust with one of my fountain pens.
I was (and still am) very sad to learn of his death in Fall 2019. December felt strange without my trip to his amazing shop. He never seemed to care whether I bought anything or not — he just wanted me to be happy writing with my pens and to talk about them, help me look at ink and so on. He was a kind, kind person, and I was so pleased the LA Times recognized what a gift he was to this city.
That’s my story of this pen, my favorite by a mile. It’s the one object I would save if there was a fire. A few years after I got it, the cap developed two tiny cracks, something that upset me until I got a new cap for it. But when the new cap came, the finale was different, gold rather than black. Looking at the difference made me realize I wanted to keep using the original one — that those tiny cracks were part of it, made that pen uniquely mine. So the new cap sits in a drawer, there in case the original breaks. The tortoise pen comes with me everywhere and has never given me any trouble. True love is forever.